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Drones are changing modern warfare

Hannah Fuchs
May 4, 2022

The war in Ukraine shows that unmanned aerial vehicles are part of modern warfare. Drones have various tasks from aerial surveillance to missile defense.

A soldier firing off a Switchblade drone
The Switchblade is known as a backpack drone because of its convenient travel-size when foldedImage: AeroVironment/abaca/picture alliance

Drones meet the requirements of modern warfare — that's the line from the US Department of Defense. And the Pentagon says it has just the drone to meet all of Ukraine's requirements. It's a new drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), called Phoenix Ghost.

"We believed this particular system would very nicely suit their needs, particularly in eastern Ukraine," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a press briefing earlier this year.

Kirby said the US had started developing the Phoenix Ghost before the outbreak of war in February.

The US pledged to deliver more than 120 of the drones as part of a $800 million (ca. €750 million) military assistance package announced in April.

But what does Phoenix Ghost do? How does it differ from other weapon systems?

Well, not much is known. There are no pictures. What we do know is that Phoenix Ghost was developed by US defense contractor Aevex Aerospace with the US Air Force. And that according to Kirby, personnel don't need a lot of training to operate it.

Kirby said the new drone was like older, Switchblade drones, which were made by US company AeroVironment for use by US special forces in Afghanistan in 2012.

Switchblade kamikaze drone

The Switchblade backpack drone belongs to the category of "loitering munitions" or "loitering weapons."

"It's a mix between a missile and a drone," Arthur Holland Michel, author and senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in Barcelona, told DW.

Drone warfare in Ukraine explained

Loitering munitions get their name from the way they work. They are launched without a specific target and circle over an area until a target is assigned by an operator on the ground, and that's when it strikes.

It has sensors that can detect emerging targets. Depending on the model's size and weight, it can stay in the air for between 15 and 40 minutes, with a range of 10 to 40 kilometers (6-25 miles).

"Unlike a large drone, it doesn't need an airfield or lots of infrastructure to launch," Michel said. "And unlike a missile, it gives you time to identify the target, get situational awareness, and then literally drive the missile drone into the target."

Switchblade drone on the ground
The Switchblade 300 weighs roughly 5.5 pounds and can stay in the air for 15 minutesImage: Cpl. Alexis Moradian/AP/picture alliance

Switchblade drones are also known as kamikaze drones because they self-destruct on impact.

Optimized: Phoenix Ghost

Phoenix Ghost drones have similar capabilities but are not exactly the same as the Switchblade, Kirby said.

David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who sits on the board of directors at Aevex Aerospace, was quoted by Politico as saying that Phoenix Ghost can fly for longer than Switchblade — up to six hours.

Deptula is reported to have said that Phoenix Ghost was a single-use drone that launches vertically and that it can operate at night with infrared sensors. The drone was effective against "medium armored ground targets," Politico quoted Deptula as saying.

Vector: German technology for Ukraine

The Ukrainian armed forces also use a surveillance drone from the German company Quantum Systems.

"Our drones are already in Ukraine," Florian Seibel, CEO of the Bavaria-based company, told the German news network RND in April.

The German "Vector" drone is not a weapon as such — it cannot drop bombs but it can form part of a weapons system. It is said to be best used for its flight and video capabilities. Ukraine might use it to optimize the aim of its artillery, for example.

Vector delivers high-resolution real-time video over 15 kilometers and can remain airborne for up to two hours.

Japan has also supplied drones to Ukraine. But Ukraine uses local drones as well.

The most common Ukrainian drone is the Leleka-100, which weighs about five kilograms and is produced by Deviro, a company in Dnipro in central Ukraine.

Vector drone at a trade show
The Vector drone is intended for surveillance and reconnaissance missionsImage: Nicolas Armer/dpa/picture alliance

Fewer Russian drones

The Russian military seems to rely less on drones, but does use them. Its main drone is the Orlan-10, a small reconnaissance and surveillance UAV made at the Center for Special Technology in St. Petersburg.

With a wingspan of 3.1 meters (10 ft), Orlan-10 can fly up to 100 kilometers. The reconnaissance system is simple in design: It uses commercial Canon EOS-D series cameras for aerial photography, as well as thermal imaging and video cameras.

But with all these developments in automated warfare, drone expert Michel says we should be aware there are risks and concerns with drones.

For example: Do users have sufficient situational awareness to make decisions about whether to use force? Are the weapons vulnerable to hacking? If a drone causes unintended damage, how can people be held accountable for that damage? How can civilians be protected?

"With each additional autonomous feature that gets added to such weapons, these concerns multiply," Michel wrote on Twitter.

This article was originally written in German.